Can the FAA Get Rid of Air Traffic Controllers?

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by Don Brown

I guess it's only natural to view the world through your own life's experiences. Having been in an uncommon profession -- air traffic control -- I suppose that gives me an uncommon view of  life. I tend to think I was a little more consumed by my job than others -- even other controllers. For over 20 years, I was not only an air traffic controller by "day" (I worked a different shift every day/night/midnight) but I was either helping start the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) or I was being a safety rep for it. That means, instead of being a father, husband, baseball coach or solar astronomer -- whatever it was other controllers did with their free time -- I was being an air traffic controller during most of my waking hours. (It's how I met our mutual friend, James Fallows -- answering ATC questions online, after work.)

Speaking of which, I'd be remiss if I didn't bring it up considering the current public debate about public-employee unions. Without a union, I wouldn't have done this, wouldn't have written these, wouldn't have met James and you wouldn't be reading this. Take it for what it's worth.

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Moving on. "NextGen" is the FAA's vision for the future of aviation. It looks like different things to different people. Think of it as a "big tent" idea. A big circus tent with three rings in it. You have General Aviation (smaller, private planes), Commercial Aviation (airliners) and Air Traffic Control. Everything looks different depending on which ring you're performing in -- or where you sit in the audience. (I'd best move on before I run any further with this FAA-as-a-three-ring-circus idea.)

James Fallows wrote a book called Free Flight (look over on the right column to find it) about NextGen from a General Aviation perspective. It's an exciting vision of the future. I think I may have unconsciously used a line from it earlier this week.

"America is blessed with a large number of runways. We have 5,194 paved runways."

I hope, after this week's discussion about overscheduled runways, that you can see the possibilities these runways present to the future of aviation (because I want to move on to  ATC's future.) I haven't taken the time to count all the runways at our main commercial airports but I'm going to guess at the nice, round figure of 100 runways. (Atlanta has 5, JFK has 4, LaGuardia has 2, you get the idea.) We keep trying to cram the vast majority of America's passenger traffic onto those 100 runways. Think of a trip from Savannah, GA, to Chattanooga, TN. Both airports have plenty of capacity. But you have to fly into the world's busiest airport -- Atlanta -- to make that trip. Or Charlotte, North Carolina (the 8th busiest commercial airport in the country.) You can't go non-stop on an airliner. We have thousands of paved runways but we keep trying to cram everybody onto the same 100 runways.

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I'll go out onto a limb here and say that the airlines don't share General Aviation's vision of moving passengers away from those 100 runways (that airlines dominate.) Not to mention how the various airport authorities that own those runways might feel about it. Commercial Aviation sees NextGen as a program to incrementally increase the capacity of airports through improved technology. It is my belief that all that technology -- added together -- won't match the increase in capacity provided by a few more runways at the major airports. And we've already discussed what happens when we build new runways.

Regardless, any of the above depends on the air traffic control system being able to handle the airplanes. NextGen looks very different to air traffic controllers -- sitting in front of a radar scope. That is one of the things the FAA wants to change with NextGen. They would have you believe that we are going to eliminate radar and use GPS.

"The Senate voted Monday to approve a bill that would speed the modernization of the nation's antiquated air traffic control system by replacing radar with GPS technology."

We can "replace" radar with GPS technology (maybe) but we will not "eliminate" radar. Radar is used to track airplanes -- including those that don't want to be tracked. (Think smugglers. Or Al-Qaeda.) Radar is vital to national security. So, the taxpayers will be paying to operate some kind of radar system and the new system using GPS. But unlike the radar system, the taxpayers won't own the new system.

"Unlike traditional FAA projects where the contractor builds the equipment and turns it over to the agency, ITT will own the infrastructure and supply aircraft position data to the FAA."

That, my friends, will be one heck of a toll booth in the sky. (I apologize for the lack of explanations. There simply isn't enough time or space and I've already strayed further afield than I intended to go.)

For controllers, NextGen doesn't represent (much of) anything new. Before it the FAA had a program called the Advance Automation System (AAS) and before that it was a program called AERA -- Automated En Route Air traffic control. I heard about AERA in the early '80s. It was going to take over ATC and controllers would become airspace "managers." In the end, the goal is the same. As one of my colleagues stated so bluntly, "They're trying to reduce us to a bunch of mouse-clicking monkeys."

So far is hasn't worked out so well for the FAA. I once read an article with this eye-catching statement about the Advanced Automation System:

"It may have been the greatest failure in the history of organized work."

The FAA's current incarnation of AERA/AAS is called ERAM -- En Route Automation Modernization. So far, it isn't doing much better. (According to my sources, ERAM is in even more trouble than is generally acknowledged.)

And all of that still misses the important point. That would be the point that is always my main point -- Safety. (I have a one-track mind when it comes to ATC.)

The FAA is trying to take controllers so far out-of-the-loop (airspace "managers" instead of controllers) that they can't get back into the loop when the computer quits. Perhaps Edward Goldstick's blog entry earlier this week got your attention. It got mine.

"-- a computer virus brings down a province-wide ambulance service in southwest Australia and pen-and-pencil plus telephones take up the banner..." 

"These folks were lucky because someone still knew the protocols for manual communications from before the computer-based dispatching was deployed."

The FAA has already taken away Center controller's paper and pencils. (Many controllers were very happy to give them up.) The controllers that know how to make the system work "before the computer-based" system "was deployed" are outnumbered now by those that don't. The FAA will tell you that they have a backup plan in place. I contend that they don't.

I told you at the beginning of this post (oh-so long ago) that I see the world through ATC-tinted glasses. Everything relates to ATC for me. Lately, I've been reading the history of the recent financial collapse and it hit me: NextGen is the Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) of ATC. A lot of really smart people think they know what they're doing. They can explain it to you six different ways and you'll nod your head but you still don't really understand what they're up to. They'll tell you that they are appropriately managing risk. They may even think they are. It sounds like a great investment.

I'm not convinced. I'm not convinced of anything -- except that we are playing with fire. Just remember, these guys aren't making a "bet" on your mortgage. They're betting with your life. If this thing goes south it's going to hurt a little more than losing half your 401k. My critics will tell you I'm anti-technology. Maybe I am. Just keep in mind I'm the one that was hauling the laptop to work so long ago and I'm writing a blog while I'm hating technology.

Thanks for sticking with me. Thanks to Jim for allowing me to fill in. Thanks to the wizards at The Atlantic for making it all work. It's been fun. Well, except for learning to blog on this interface. It reminds of of when we switched over to DSR.... Oh alright. I'll stop now.

Don Brown was an air traffic controller at Atlanta Center, the busiest air traffic control facility in the world, for 25 years. During that time he was also the Facility Safety Representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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